The Plight of Beauty
For beauty makes a claim on us:
it is a call to renounce our narcissism
and look with reverence on the world.[i]
Sir Roger Scruton
How can we discuss the beauty of art today, in an age riven by assertions that subjectivity makes a mockery of beauty? We might casually describe an actress, a summer dress, a landscape view or a plate of food as beautiful, but attempt to find a contemporary art critic who eulogises a new painting as beautiful. If a contemporary artist said that his aim was to produce beautiful art, he would be accused of naïveté or insincerity. He would be automatically treated with suspicion by the intelligentsia. Professors of recent art history (many of them graduates of Women’s Studies, Post-Colonialism and Critical Theory) know that “beauty” is discarded and discredited. “Beauty” appears within quotation marks, indicating its fictive quality and the writer’s Olympian detachment to this idea from a pre-enlightened era.
The principal assaulters of the ideal of beauty are of three ideologies: Neo-Marxism, Post-Modernism and Progressivist identity politics. These schools are linked and overlap, but it is worth looking at their specific criticisms of beauty individually. The advocates of these schools will hereafter be called “modern materialists”.
The first is Neo-Marxism (found in New Criticism and Critical Theory), which declares that exceptionality is merely socially-sanctioned framing done in order to assert the values of a hegemonic group, which dictates rules reflecting and reinforcing that group’s control. Beauty as an expression of exceptionality can only be an arbitrary social construct, one which is cemented by an education system arranged to produce a consensus that locks in place the “lie of exceptionality”, as Neo-Marxists put it. Furthermore, as a materialist utilitarian epistemology, Neo-Marxism states that notions of beauty as a reflection of perfection – subject to both personal feeling and agreed external metrics (proportion, balance, harmony) – are fictions used to post factum justify acceptance of socially imposed order. Any spiritual component of aesthetic response is imagined not actual. Beauty can only be said to apply to a structure that functions perfectly, for example, in a building or a machine. It is the most efficient use of resources, no more than that.
The second is Post-Modernism, which states that the idea of beauty rests upon a consensus of what is normal and what is exceptional, and that the very idea of normality is a system of semantic control designed to demean those who do not conform. Normality is a measure determined by the majority population and is used to exclude minority groups and individuals, thereby limiting resources and reducing status of minorities and justifying their dehumanisation. The idea of normality is a tool of the power of a patriarchal Eurocentric society, controlling by means of language and cultural standards, including aesthetics. Post-Modernism implies or demands that all majority standards be fractured and undermined to expose underlying power dynamics.
The third is Progressivist identity politics, which opposes any linking of the description of “beautiful” to persons of indigenous European heritage or any product of European culture. Hostility towards affirmations of beauty indicating European persons is temperamental and instinctive. Advocates of Progressivism refuses to acknowledge that celebration of European beauty does not invalidate standards of non-European peoples and cultures. This is the fallacy: celebrating A does not entail demeaning B. Progressivism (in its current form) states that European society is the recipient of coerced privilege and ill-gotten wealth and therefore uniquely repugnant. For the Progressivist, celebrating beauty in a person who is ethnically European – or beauty of a Medieval cathedral – is deprecation of non-European standards, thus supportive of “white supremacy”.[i]
All three approaches distain the celebration of beauty embodied in the Western art canon; all have presented objections that underpin attacks upon the canon and upon the very existence of canons. For modern materialists, the notion of a hierarchy that can be agreed upon by a population, be celebrated as an apex of cultural achievement and serve as a measure for future production is anathema. Fierce hatred of Western civilisation and its religions inspires retributive profanation on ideal forms through iconoclasm of statues (product of society) or tattooing of human bodies (product of God). Modern materialism encourages destructive intolerance towards beliefs of the majority of the population because modern materialism expresses the belief systems of the elite. (This is a point covered below).
How can one assess the beauty of a woman if one cannot even say that a woman is “an adult female human” – a definition that some academic and civil authorities consider to be “transphobic”? If the foundations of essential types are so fractured and undermined, how can any higher-level discussion be possible? That is, of course, why the foundations have been undermined – in order to paralyse and invalidate any assumption or consensus. By instilling doubt in the naïve and forcing obliging concession in the polite – and by tying up potential opponents of Post-Modernism in an endless series of arguments over definitions – the resenter of beauty, harmony and normality frustrates, diverts and, ultimately, tires out anyone who wishes to engage in good-faith discussion of substantial matters regarding beauty. Post-Modernist arguments are not made in good faith; Post-Modernists start from the presumption that Western civilisation is uniquely despicable and they work backwards to find justifications to vilify what is cherished by that civilisation.
Beauty calls for disinterested and engaged discrimination of taste and that must be comparative, not absolute. According to Roger Scruton, assessment of beauty requires “the attempt to show what is right, fitting, worthwhile, attractive or expressive in the object: in other words, to identify the aspect of the thing that claims our attention.”[ii] The result will be (to a degree) provisional and personal. You and I might agree on one American Colonial building being more beautiful than another, due to its exceptional quality yet also excelling as a type; however, we cannot measure beauty of different types by decisively nominating Baroque sculpture A more beautiful than Gothic sculpture B, still less measure judgment in fine degrees.
The modern materialist seizes upon this ambiguity, stating that impossibility of measurement indicates an absence of objective reality. If beauty cannot be measured, it does not exist. As Scruton points out, appreciation of beauty requires disinterestedness – that is, the beholder has no material interest in the object’s beauty.[iii] An object is appreciated for itself. However, a modern materialist is a utilitarian and – like the animal or psychopath – judges everything by its efficacy as a tool. Ultimately, he hates beauty because (being a utilitarian) he cannot appreciate it in a disinterested fashion and therefore does not understand beauty. On some level, conscious of his inadequacy, the resenter of beauty turns his frustration into profanation – even physical desecration – of that which is beloved of others. It is the psychosis of the art vandal diluted but a little.[iv]
Modern materialists wish to instil in us a suspicion of beauty. They wish us to mistrust every standard of a civilisation they consider not so much compromised by lapses and shortcomings, as constructed with malicious intent and designed to conceal the reality of inequality and injustice upon which the civilisation is grounded. As individuals, we are aware of the way beauty beguiles us. We know that beauty can lead us astray. Elegant explanations are not always true but they feel true to us.[v] Beauty is used to sell us products and ideas; it tempts us into moral lapses; it overturns our reason. As John Berger set out in Ways of Seeing (Penguin, 1972), images of classical beauty can be paraphrased or appropriated by the advertiser to sell products. So, when supporters of modern materialist politics warn us of the danger of beauty, we are receptive to their ideas. The difference is that traditional outlooks warn us to be cautious and act judiciously, the modern materialist urges us to be incautious and act intemperately. The modern materialist does not say (as the traditional moralists do) “Question beauty and doubt your motivations for responding to it”; he says “All beauty is a lie and therefore it must be defiled”.
We must not neglect the role of class snobbery in this situation. The elite, who are so averse to beauty, consider themselves the stewards of culture. It is the plebian mass that loves Van Gogh’s sunflowers and decorate their walls with posters of Monet’s sunsets and Pre-Raphaelite damsels. It is the educated upper-middle who attend exhibitions of conceptual art, staff contemporary galleries, embrace Progressivist ideals and provide the majority of university-educated artists and university-endorsed authors. The elite do not hate Monet but they pride themselves on their toleration of difficult conceptual art that could not easily be defined as beautiful. The compound noun used to deride popular art is revealing: a “crowd-pleaser”. The elite display their contempt for the taste of the majority because it indicates to other members of their class their separate identity and superior status.
Any talk of the spiritual function of beautiful art – and the idea that beauty reflects either divinity or a Platonic ideal – falls on stony ground with atheist modern materialists. One need not be a theist to find comfort and excitement in the way contemplating beauty exposes otherwise inaccessible areas of humanity – which we could call an areligious analogue to divine revelation – but such matters are ruled out by the cynical analysis of Post-Modernists or the uncomprehending materialism of Neo-Marxists.
Consider resentment among the managerial elite for beauty in a recent catalogue of Canadian landscape paintings by the Group of Seven. These luminous visions of the wilderness are superb works of art, tributes to the drama of the desolate north and are greatly beloved by Canadians. Yet the curators of Canadian art, steeped in modern materialism, dislike that beauty. In the foreword to a catalogue, directors of three museums assert, “While many Canadians still cherish these familiar images as emblems of national pride and self-representation, they are also criticized for their neglect of hard realities, such as violence toward and displacement of Indigenous communities and environmental devastation.”[vi] (Notice how they distance themselves from the popularity of this art.) Martina Weinhart adds “[the painters’] practice of excluding Indigenous peoples from the images also denied the paintings any social reality.”[vii] These beautiful landscapes of 1920 are politically deceptive because they refuse to acknowledge the social injustice that curators in 2020 consider irrefutable.
At one point, a curator writing in the Canadian catalogue quotes feted American academic W.J.T. Mitchell: “Landscape is a particular historical formation associated with European imperialism.”[viii] With one sweeping dismissal, all Western landscape painting can be tarred as a tool of colonialism and – in the New World – a device to assist displacement and genocide of indigenous peoples. If so, it is only fair to deride, remove and (eventually) destroy beautiful art. This is not dissimilar to hostility feminists have towards depictions of female nudity by male artists – framed by Berger as “objectification” of women – and their envious wrath, best seen in the 1914 attack on Velazquez’s Venus at her Toilette (c. 1647-51) by a militant suffragette campaigning for women’s rights. The attacker was Mary Richardson, who despised the beauty others admired, at a time when many British people were indifferent or hostile towards her political cause. The absolutism and violent intolerance which motivates many feminists can be seen in political and religious fanatics. Richardson later became a prominent member of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s.[ix]
When we encounter beauty in today’s art it rarely comes to us as the beauty we find in previous ages. In the objects of British artist Roger Hiorns (b. 1975) we encounter readymade objects encrusted in blue copper-sulphate crystals (Untitled (2006) collection Tate, London). Here, the artist no longer creates beauty but curates it, instigating natural processes that produce beauty. In so doing, Hiorns admits the artist’s impotence to do more than point us to pre-existing processes rather than to thoughts or skills unique to visual artists.
The balloon sculpture of Jeff Koons (b. 1955), balloon statues made in coloured sheet metal, is Post-Modern. It derives its forms and appearance from mass-produced disposable consumer products (helium balloons); skilled fabricators are entrusted with making giant replicas in permanent materials for the high-art market. A Koons balloon sculpture is a readymade form nominated by the artist to be the model for his art, produced in a multiple edition by fabricators, marketed internationally by a multi-national gallery at an art fair, purchased as an investment by a multi-millionaire and kept in storage at international tax haven before being auctioned for profit.
Beauty in contemporary art is appropriated from mankind or nature, not original. It is not wrested through personal cultivated skill guided by experience, made by the artist’s hand and given to us in a never-before-seen formulation. Traditional materials, means and methods are considered inextricably associated with outdated notions of authorship and consensus.
The difficulty that faces those of us who believe that beauty is possible and necessary in art of today, is not a paucity of capable artists but the active resistance towards beauty within the managerial elite, the cadre which dominates museums, art education, academia and publishing. As discussed, the resistance to beauty is fuelled by emotions of envy and anger, buttressed by the intellectual justification of modern materialism and a class-based contempt for the taste of the majority. The plight of beauty is the plight of a civilisation facing the encroachment of modern-materialist authoritarianism.
Alexander Adams is a British artist, critic and poet. His art criticism has appeared in Apollo, British Art Journal, Burlington Magazine, The Critic and The Jackdaw. His art has been exhibited worldwide and is in the permanent collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum (London), Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool), Northampton Museums and other museums. His books of poems and drawings have been published in the UK, the USA and Malta.
[i] Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011, p. 145.
[i] It is worth noting that the Progressivist compact between expansionist corporations, non-elected bodies, charities, the super-wealthy and the managerial technocratic elite which dominates most states worldwide (explicitly and implicitly) advances globalism, which is hostile towards the discrete standards and traditions of nations and regions. Globalism necessitates the active suppression of the local in favour of the international. It leads to the imposition of the new, artificial, blended, bland and non-specific in culture – which is imposed top-down – and the discrediting of traditionalist preferences (cast as xenophobic, chauvinist and nativist) held by the majority of the population. This necessarily means that national and regional ideals of beauty are suspect in the eyes of Progressivists.
[ii] Scruton, 2011, p. 13
[iii] Scruton, 2011, pp. 22-7
[iv] Alexander Adams, Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History, Societas/Imprint Academic, Exeter, 2020, pp. 66-8
[v] “Beauty, which gives the myths acceptance, renders the incredible credible.” Pindar
[vii] Weinhart, P. 17
[viii] Quoted Weinhart, p. 20
[ix] Adams, 2020, pp. 55-8